How Ejection Seats Work

Physics of Ejecting

An ejection seat is test-fired at NASA to analyze the seat's ability to perform a zero-altitude, zero-velocity ejection.
An ejection seat is test-fired at NASA to analyze the seat's ability to perform a zero-altitude, zero-velocity ejection.
Photo courtesy NASA

Ejecting from an airplane is a violent sequence of events that places the human body under an extreme amount of force. The primary factors involved in an aircraft ejection are the force and acceleration of the crewmember, according to Martin Herker, a former physics teacher. To determine the force exerted on the person being ejected, we have to look at Newton's second law of motion, which states that the acceleration of an object depends on the force acting upon it and the mass of the object.

Newton's second law is represented as:

Force = Mass x Acceleration


Regarding a crewmember ejecting from a plane, M equals his or her body mass plus the mass of the seat. A is equal to the acceleration created by the catapult and the underseat rocket.

Acceleration is measured in terms of G, or gravity forces. Ejecting from an aircraft is in the 5-G to 20-G range, depending on the type of ejection seat. As mentioned in the introduction, 1 G is equal to the force of Earth's gravity and determines how much we weigh. One G of acceleration is equal to 32 feet/second2 (9.8 m/s2). This means that if you drop something off of a cliff, it will fall at a rate of 32 feet/second2.

It's simple to determine the mass of the seat and the equipment attached to the seat. The pilot's mass is the largest variable. A 180-pound person normally feels 180 pounds of force being applied to him when standing still. In a 20-G impact, that same 180-pound person will feel 3,600 pounds of force being exerted. To learn more about force, click here.

"To determine the speed of the [ejection] seat at any point in time, one solves the Newton equation knowing the force applied and the mass of the seat/occupant system. The only other factors that are needed are the time of the force to be applied and the initial velocity present (if any)," writes Herker on his Web site describing the physics for understanding ejections. Herker provides this equation for determining the speed of the seat:

Speed = Acceleration x Time + Initial speed

V(f) = AT + V(i)

Initial speed refers to either the climb or the sink rate of the aircraft. It may also be determined by the initial step of the ejection process in a seat that combines an explosive catapult and an underseat rocket. The seat speed must be high enough to allow separation of the seat and person from the aircraft as quickly as possible in order to clear the entire aircraft.

The use of an ejection seat is always a last resort when an aircraft is damaged and the pilot has lost control. However, saving the lives of pilots is a higher priority than saving planes, and sometimes an ejection is required in order to save a life.

For more information on ejection seats and related technology, see the links below.

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